On July 10, on the eve of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that Ankara was ready to ratify Sweden's NATO accession protocol, potentially putting an end to a saga that has dragged on for over a year.
Finland and Sweden, which were previously nonaligned militarily, applied for membership of the alliance in May 2022 following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Then in June 2022, at a summit in Madrid, NATO invited both countries to join, conditional on the ratification of every member state.
So, what does the deal struck between Turkey and Sweden mean, and what further roadblocks could lie ahead?
In many ways, there was a sense of déjà vu after what happened at the Madrid summit. Back then, the noises coming out of Ankara were very negative about the chances of Turkey allowing Sweden and Finland to join. But then, a day before the gathering in the Spanish capital, the three countries agreed on a trilateral memorandum, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg serving as an arbiter, in which Sweden and Finland pledged to lift an arms embargo against Turkey, update their counterterrorism legislation, and extradite individuals (mostly Kurds) that Turkey deems to be engaging in terrorist activities.
Finland fulfilled its part of the bargain and promptly joined NATO in early April. But Sweden was stuck, largely due to Turkey's objections to regular Swedish demonstrations, where emigre Kurds protested against Erdogan's government, along with some incidents of the Koran being burned that incensed both Turkey and large parts of the Muslim world.
But, as in Madrid a year earlier, a day before the July 11-12 summit in the Lithuanian capital was about to start and after plenty of doom and gloom about the likelihood of a breakthrough, Stoltenberg again announced a major deal -- this time a bilateral security "compact," or agreement, between Sweden and Turkey that will most likely allow the former to become NATO's 32nd member.
What Does The Agreement Entail?
Essentially the deal covers two things. Firstly, Sweden and Turkey will continue to work together to fight terrorism. The two countries will meet annually at the ministerial level and, according to a joint statement agreed after the meeting in Vilnius, Sweden will present a road map at the first ministerial meeting, likely to take place in the fall, "as the basis of its continued fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations towards the full implementation of all elements of the Trilateral Memorandum."
Secondly, during the meeting in Vilnius it was also agreed that the NATO secretary-general will create a new position within NATO structures -- a special coordinator for counterterrorism. However, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson did make clear in the press conference after the negotiations that Sweden didn't have to make any new pledges when it comes to handing over more people that Turkey considers to be terrorists.
Earlier the same day, NATO officials from various member states agreed on new defense plans for the military alliance, explaining how the bloc would defend itself in the case of an attack. For most alliance members, the likely adversary would be Russia, but Turkey insisted -- and NATO agreed -- that the alliance would also consider threats from terrorism. NATO officials who did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the issue told RFE/RL in Vilnius that NATO's concurrence on this point meant Ankara was prepared to strike a deal with Sweden.
A New Push For Turkey To Join The EU
Earlier in the day, the Turkish president had thrown a bit of a curveball by demanding that the European Union revive Turkey's stalled membership bid as a precondition for Sweden joining NATO. As a result, the statement issued after the meeting in Vilnius said that "Sweden will actively support efforts to reinvigorate Turkey's EU accession process, including modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and visa liberalization."
Unlike all other EU candidate countries, Turkey still doesn't have a visa-free regime with the EU -- something it has coveted for a long time. The same is true of the customs union between the EU and Turkey, which entered into force at the end of 1995 but which Turkey would like to expand to include more agricultural products and services. In 2016, the European Commission issued an assessment on how to modernize the customs union, but just as in the case with visa liberalization, the 27 EU member states haven't reached the necessary consensus on moving forward.
Sweden is actually a strong proponent of EU enlargement and has long favored stronger EU engagement with Ankara, despite many skeptics remaining, notably Austria, Cyprus, France, Greece, and the Netherlands. Enter Charles Michel, the president of the EU Council, the body that sets the EU's political and strategic priorities, who met with Erdogan after a hiatus in the talks between the Turkish president, Kristersson, and Stoltenberg. After lengthy discussions, Michel tweeted that he and Erdogan "explored opportunities to bring cooperation back to the forefront and re-energize our relations." He also wrote that he had tasked the European Commission and the European External Action Service, the EU's diplomatic service, to submit a report on how to proceed.
It's clear that Turkey, having seen the EU enlargement process kick into gear with the candidate statuses of Ukraine and Moldova last year, wants to be part of that discussion as well. In the end, though, any progress depends on how much appetite there is in Brussels for further enlargement, in particular concerning a country as large and as powerful as Turkey.
So, Is It A Done Deal?
Both Stoltenberg and Kristersson said after the meeting that they hoped that the Swedish accession protocol will be brought to the Turkish parliament for a vote "as soon as possible" without going into any specific timelines. If the accession document isn't ratified in July, then the earliest opportunity would be October, when the Ankara chamber returns from recess.
Then there is the Hungarian question. Budapest has, in purported solidarity with Turkey, also failed to ratify Sweden's NATO accession treaty, something required of all the member states' parliaments. The secretary-general reminded everyone that Hungary has explained time and again that it won't be the last country to give the thumbs-up and Kristersson spoke of assurances from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that Budapest won't delay the process any further.
So there is still a chance that both Turkey and Hungary could whizz through all the required legal procedures and Sweden could become a NATO member as early as this month. But in a process that has dragged on for longer than expected, predictions are perhaps a fool's errand. Especially since in recent days, Swedish police said that they had received three new applications to burn holy books, including the Koran outside a Stockholm mosque.
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